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Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphoristsby James Geary
Synopses & Reviews
Bestselling expert James Geary's enlightening, entertaining compendium of wit and wisdom, from Sun Tzu to Desmond Tutu--and 350 aphorists in between.
Both an expert and a collector, James Geary has devoted his life to aphorisms--and the last few years to organizing, indexing, and even translating them. The result is Geary's Guide, featuring classic writers like Voltaire, Twain, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche, but also more surprising figures, such as Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson, and Mae West. Some of the aphorists appear in English for the first time. But it is more than just a conventional anthology. It is also an encyclopedia, containing brief biographies of each author in addition to a selection of his or her aphorisms. The book is a field guide, too, with aphorists organized into eight different "species," such as Comics, Critics & Satirists; Icons & Iconoclasts; and Painters & Poets. The book's two indexes--by author and by subject--make it easily searchable, while its unique organizational structure and Geary's lively biographical entries make it different from all previous reference works.
Geary's Guide is eminently suitable for browsing or for sustained reading. A comprehensive guide to our most intimate, idiosyncratic literary form, the book is an indispensable tool for writers and public speakers as well as essential reading for all language lovers.
"Off and on during my life, I have passed sleepless nights in making up lists of the dozen or so books a person might choose to take along if suddenly marooned on a desert island. This is a relatively easy game for serious readers: At least half the titles would be recognized classics — the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, a good dictionary, that sort of thing. But occasionally I have made the challenge... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a little more difficult: 'What if you could take just one book?' In my case, I finally decided that the best, mildly vainglorious choice would be my own commonplace notebook, the volume into which I have copied out favorite passages from my reading during the past 40 years. In it are poems, clever sayings, lines from Shakespeare and the Bible and many, many sentences and paragraphs from half-forgotten works of fiction and nonfiction. At least a third of the entries might be loosely categorized as aphorisms. The aphorism is the prose equivalent of a memorable line of poetry, a bit of worldly wisdom or self-understanding reduced to a short, sharp shock: 'It is a rule of God's Providence that we should succeed by failure' (John Henry Newman). In 'The World in a Phrase,' his 2005 history of the form, James Geary laid down his 'Five Laws of the Aphorism: It Must Be Brief, It Must Be Personal, It Must Be Definitive, It Must Be Philosophical, and It Must Have A Twist.' Need some examples? Here are three, honestly chosen at random, from 'Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists': 'Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.' (Mae West) 'To live is to lose ground.' (E.M. Cioran) 'The only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.' (Oscar Wilde) Anyone who enjoys such quotations with an attitude probably owns — or should acquire — 'The Viking Book of Aphorisms,' compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, and 'The Oxford Book of Aphorisms,' edited by John Gross. They remain invaluable and irreplaceable collections. But their emphasis is on the great maxims of the past, and they are organized by theme — that is, chapters proffer a hodge-podge of epigrammatic observations, by various authors, about love, ambition or human suffering (to name three popular subjects). By contrast, Geary arranges his guide by writer, starting with a concise biography followed by anywhere from three or four to a couple of dozen 'essential aphorisms.' He deliberately includes many unexpected contemporaries — musician Leonard Cohen and longshoreman-essayist Eric Hoffer, for instance — as well as writers from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. For convenience, he loosely clusters his aphorists by their professions or backgrounds: 'Comics, Critics and Satirists,' 'Icons and Iconoclasts,' 'Philosophers and Theorists' and so forth. Periodically, he also sections off 'parallel' observations, such as these on the theme of self-transformation: 'You must be the change you wish to see in the world.' (Gandhi) 'God does not change what is in people until they change what is in themselves.' (Muhammad) 'Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.' (Tolstoy) Geary has done a lot of research, both in libraries, where he claims to have consulted 1,400 volumes, and on the Internet, where he now maintains an aphorism Web site to which readers can contribute. Not surprisingly then, his new book is a wonderful breviary of wisdom, insight and cynicism, and one that will immediately find a place at many bedsides. But readers will soon recognize that not all these urbane pensees are as full of pith and vinegar as one would like; some struck me as vague, silly or ho-hum. This is probably inevitable when trying to expand the aphoristic canon and show that the form has continued to evolve since the heyday of its greatest master, La Rochefoucauld. For most of us, that 17th-century Frenchman remains the touchstone of worldly wisdom. However cynical you may be, or perhaps aspire to be, you're never likely to cast a colder eye on life and love than La Rochefoucauld. In his 700 or so maxims, this former soldier records the bitter home truths that most of us believe in and few of us admit to: 'We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.' 'Almost no one is perceptive enough to realize all the harm he does.' 'The mind is always the dupe of the heart.' La Rochefoucauld is so rich a writer that none of these pungent remarks is included in Geary, though many others are: 'The reason why lovers never tire of each other's company is that the conversation is always about themselves.' 'We are never as unhappy as we think, nor as happy as we had hoped.' This courtly philosopher views each of us as governed, consciously or not, by vanity and self-interest. In society we all mask our true intentions, and a universal hypocrisy is the way of the world. Even our generous actions are all egotistical at heart. We just want to show off our virtue. In its essence, even the most coldly bitter aphorism represents a highly compacted form of wisdom literature, a miniature moral essay closely related to Zen koans, traditional proverbs, medieval sententiae, Wildean epigrams and comic one-liners. 'Geary's Guide' thus ranges back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus — 'Character is fate' — and forward to contemporary artist Barbara Kruger: 'I shop therefore I am.' In between there are pleasures and surprises galore. Take the favorite Washington subject of Realpolitik. Plato sharply writes, 'One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.' Jonathan Swift complains, 'How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning.' Not least, that shrewdest of politicians, Benjamin Disraeli, reminds us that 'next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forgo an advantage.' Several contemporaries — most unknown to me — offer splendid epigrams about our particularly modern desperations. Steven Wright explains that 'if everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something,' and Jack Gardner adds, 'If nothing else is available, clutch at straws.' James Richardson sadly notes that 'the man who sticks to his plan will become what he used to want to be.' As the poet Don Paterson truly says, 'A book of aphorisms is a lexicon of disappointments.' Naturally, then, love and heartbreak inspire many of the most piercing observations. Some are famous, like Pascal's 'The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know.' But many others should be. 'All adventures,' writes Natsume Soseki, 'begin with drink. And all end with women.' Hans Kudszus asserts that 'those who have never realized with head and heart that two times two is five have never known passion.' Roberto Gervaso wistfully remarks that 'the most beautiful moment of love is when you have the illusion that it will last forever; the worst is when you realize that it has already lasted too long.' La Rochefoucauld himself would envy that one. Though most readers will gravitate to the aphorisms themselves, Geary's pen portraits of their authors shouldn't be overlooked. He says something fresh or interesting about nearly everyone. Princess Elizabeth Bibesco was, according to Proust (who is unaccountably left out of this book), 'probably unsurpassed in intelligence by any of her contemporaries.' The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz was so poor during his life in Buenos Aires that he attended the funerals of strangers in order to eat the free food. Chamfort, we learn, so feared arrest during the Revolution that he tried to commit suicide and ended up inflicting 22 'separate wounds on himself, none of which was immediately fatal.' Not least among its virtues, 'Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists' can serve as an introduction to writers worth reading at greater length (Stanislaw Lec, E.M. Cioran, Jose Ortega y Gasset). For me, the most unexpected discovery was the reclusive philosopher F.H. Bradley, whose observations possess a weary prose-poetry: 'Unhappy those who seek to revive the intoxication and who cannot renew the mystery.' 'One was asked, "What is Hell?" And he answered, "It is Heaven — that has come too late."' Oddly romantic observations for a man who passed a quiet life as an Oxford don. Be warned: Aphorisms are as addictive as they are fierce and thought-provoking. So let us end with one more political example, this time from Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist: 'There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.' Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com. His most recent book, 'Classics for Pleasure,' will be published in a few weeks." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A bestselling expert offers an enlightening, entertaining compendium of wit and wisdom, with this comprehensive guide to our most intimate, idiosyncratic literary form. This work is an indispensable tool for writers and public speakers as well as essential reading for all language lovers.
About the Author
James Geary is the author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism and The Body Electric: An Anatomy of the New Bionic Senses. He lives in London with his wife and three children. His Web site is www.jamesgeary.com.
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